The problem with designing for the squeaky wheels

This blog is not exceptionally popular. On any given day I probably have less than 200 readers, small potatoes in the blogosphere. Of those, maybe less than 10% ever post comments, but I am nearly always impressed with how thoughtful and well-expressed those comments are, even when someone takes great issue with something I have written. I have rarely had to deal with trolls or rage-filled screeds. So I feel a tiny bit of pride that I seem to have attracted something akin to the top echelon of WoW blog readers.

I don’t reply to every comment, but I read every one of them, and even when I do not reply, I do think about every point made in them or sometimes just appreciate the humor of a well-expressed smartass retort. Every once in a while, though, a reader makes a comment that puts my brain into overdrive. This happened with a comment on my last post, from Marathal, a fellow blogger.

You can go back and check it out for yourself, but basically Marathal made the point that Blizz adjusts their game at least in part to remedy shortcomings expressed by players who have left the game, rather than by trying to figure out why people who have not left are still playing. This may seem like a subtle distinction, but the more I thought about it, the more profound I thought it was.

WoW has millions of customers, and with that many there will always be a pretty significant turnover — people leave the game, new people take it up. But Blizz sits up and take notice if many more are leaving than are joining. We do not know if this is happening lately, because they stopped publishing subscription numbers after the great exodus during the first few months of Warlords of Draenor. But we are still feeling the effects of game design changes Blizz made in response to that exodus.

The big public complaint about WoD was that there was a lack of “content”. People left the game, so Blizz tells us, because they felt that once they had leveled up their characters, there was nothing to do. Thus, in Legion, Blizz went berserk overcompensating for this perceived shortfall. We have world quests (basically just a lot of dailies, renamed), an artifact weapon designed to be endlessly upgraded, flying  gated both by time and long-grind achievements, lottery-drop super gear in the form of RNG legendaries (lots of them, so once you get one you do not quit trying), a renamed WoD garrison with continuing quest lines, professions that can only be maxed out by participating in activities that require high level gear and good luck, quality of life items gated behind tedious rep grinds, Mythic+ dungeons designed to keep players running the same instances over and over indefinitely, classes/specs that only perform adequately with certain levels of gear with certain secondary stats— well, you get the idea.

Basically, Legion is a response to all the players who quit in WoD. It is Blizz saying, “You want content? I got yer content right here, whiners!”

Did it work to bring these players back? We don’t know for sure, absent subscription numbers, but certainly it brought some back. There is anecdotal evidence that many of the same players who left in WoD and came back for Legion, though, continue to take significant breaks from the game as soon as they have plowed through whatever the current patch is, waiting for another flurry of game activity with the next patch, then leaving again, etc. I would love to see the weekly-fluctuating MAU numbers over the course of an entire Legion patch.

Meanwhile, what about the players who did not leave during WoD? Why did they stay, in the face of the gigantic “No content!” outcry? Clearly, this was not a good enough reason for them to quit the game. I can only speak for myself, but I stayed because I think the game is big enough for me to always find my own content, and for something more complex: I like the feeling of maxing out my character for the expansion and then having total freedom to do whatever the hell I want to when I log on. It is my favorite part of every expansion. I usually set some loose game goals at the start — max out professions, be a contributing member of a heroic-level raid team, enjoy most of the expansion’s perks, have the leisure to develop all my alts, etc. — and when I reach that point I feel a real sense of accomplishment.

I feel like Legion has taken that away from me. In their zeal to appease the players who demand to have their game goals set for them, Blizz has designed an expansion that never lets me achieve mine.

One quick example: Our raid leader — a terrific generally laid-back guy — recently said that he expects all raiders for the next tier (due in about 3 weeks) to have achieved level 75 on their main artifact. Given that I am currently only at level 69 and that each new level requires billions and billions of AP, my life for the next 3 weeks will pretty much consist of me grinding out every AP-reward world quest every day, because I want to keep raiding in the next tier. It will also require me to run some M+ dungeons (which I am not a fan of) to get the huge weekly AP bonus from running a +10 or higher. In short, a year into Legion, my game time will not really be my own.

Sure, I brought this on myself by wanting to be part of a raid team. But my point is, Blizz designed our main piece of Legion gear to be not only indispensable, but also a never-ending grind. Our RL is merely doing his job requiring us to keep up with the grind, because that will actually make a difference in our next-tier progression rate. This may be the first time in WoW history when merely having the previous tier’s gear will probably be insufficient to tackle the next raid tier — we will need to have a separate progression on our weapon, one not connected directly with tier.

Blizz designed the artifact weapon — and nearly all of Legion — to appease the short-attention-span people who left the game in WoD, not to appeal to the people who did not leave.

There is an obvious danger in this design approach. Blizz runs the risk of not being able to keep up with the demands of the easily-bored, and in the process of trying, of making the game ultimately abhorrent to the steady, patient, loyal group of players that are still the game’s core, no matter how much Blizz may wish to deny it. Each of us has our own point of no return, our own final straw. We may not be able to articulate what that is, but we will recognize it when it happens. For me personally, I feel a loss every time Blizz removes game play options, every time they force me into a certain track in order to achieve one of my goals. With Legion, I have seen that trend accelerating. What happens in the next expansion may well determine how much longer I stay in the game.

I wish Blizz would see what they are doing to their most loyal players, and I wish they would realize that they cannot sustain a game entirely with the hard-core pros. (It’s not the elite top 10% who pay the bulk of the monthly subscriptions, after all.) WoW won its preeminent place in the gaming world because it was available to nearly everyone, because it offered as much to the casual player as it did to the hard core types. It really was a game for the masses, and I am saddened that apparently Blizz believes that was a bad thing. For it now to become accessible almost exclusively to the pros, to those who have the desire and luxury of devoting hours to it every day, is in my opinion a betrayal of the very roots of the game.

So, yeah, a shout out to Marathal for really making me think. And thanks to my few but loyal readers — you are tops in my book.

Thinking is thirsty work, though, and and thus it is time for me to grab a beer and start a weekend. 😉 You all enjoy yours, too.

15 thoughts on “The problem with designing for the squeaky wheels

  1. I agree with you on them designing more people out of the game and hope that somehow they see this.

    I know I’m not quite as hard core as I used to be or as you are, but I feel like for a Heroic only guild your guild leader’s requirement is ridiculous. You won’t be fighting for server firsts and the AK will go up a lot before it really matters having those relics completely unlocked. Is it really going to matter if it takes your guild an extra week or two on progression vs burning out grinding it now? Most of the time better awareness will help you a lot more than slightly higher artifact. I used to be a top 100 US guild level of raider and I understand that often those requirements get handed down because some other guild is doing it so you have to keep up, but at some point you have to determine if it’s really a requirement that makes sense for your guild. It was very hard for me to change my perspective on that stuff, but finally after years I’ve learned to not worry as much about grinding that last 1%

    1. Yeah, I tend to agree. My suspicion is that the requirement will be eased as we get closer to the next raid. I think any of us within that 1% you mention, even 2-3 levels from it, will be fine. I suspect his real reason for saying it was to remind some of us slackers we can’t just go on vacation from the game and show up only for raids. It is unfortunate that we can’t, because burnout is a real problem sometimes, but there it is.

      What I was trying to get at is that Blizz has implemented this mechanism that is actually aimed at keeping even semi-casual players from taking game breaks. They are fixated on any mechanic that “requires” keeping current with, because that tends to keep their MAU numbers up. This is fine for those who live and breathe this game, but for those of us with families and jobs and non-gamer friends, eventually it just becomes too much. We feel like we are falling further and further behind our peers in the game, possibly that we can not contribute meaningfully to our raid team, and we end up quitting altogether.

      1. A friend that has been living with us for awhile now walked away from WoW. He said that with working a full time job, he can no longer keep up with the amount of time required to play at the level he wants too. His solution instead of cutting back or doing other less time consuming aspects of playing was to just walk away completely. Now he just plays Diablo because there is no constant pressure to keep up.

  2. Thank you for articulating so much better than I could. I may have had a bit of a rant this morning directed at the development staff. I know it’s not 100% their fault. They are told from the highest levels the direction they are to proceed. But until word works it’s way up the ladder all we can hope is that maybe someone reads something we write, and passes it along before we are gone.

    1. For sure. Many of what I consider to be the worst design trends have come about since Ion Hazzikostas began to play major roles in the game. Now, I do not know if there is cause and effect there or if he is merely following guidance from higher — most likely some combination of his own personal views of the game combined with ATVI strategies he must support.

      I will keep sending out my words, as will you, and like you say all we can do is hope eventually they find their way into some echelon that might take them seriously.

      1. I have had the same thought. I think it matters to the game too, that some of those in charge have not been with the game since it began. They are less attached to things that worked well before the got put in charge and more focused on branding it as their own.

  3. You nailed it. I thought I was one of the only ones to feel that way. I loved logging in and “be bored”.

    Remember back in WotlK, where raiders used to fish in Dalaran for coins while waiting for a raid to start, once they got settled? There is no one at that fountain anymore today…And I am so glad I am not raiding. I would have burned out, I am sure.

    How I wish this will change in the future.

    Blizzard once said it themselves; WoW is not a game meant to be played 24/7. Yet their target audience seem to be exactly that; players with all the time of the entire day on their hands. Trying to please those, while hoping the rest of us just hops along? Even I have my limits.

    I miss getting a sense of being “done”. Betrayal of the very roots of the game is well put. Sadly.

    1. That statement hit the proverbial nail on the head. There is no sense of being done. The finish line keeps getting moved, and people seem to be dropping out of the race, or are just walking over to a nice bench under the shade of a tree to relax for a time. They know if they wait a bit there will be a car along shortly to take them further back up to get into the race again. But it is a race that will never be won.

    2. Yes, that’s it exactly: we can no longer be “done”, in almost any sense we may have understood that for ourselves. Well said, thank you.

      1. Thank you too, it’s always good to bounce observations and opinions back and forth.

        It’s like, if we worked all day and never had a weekend to relax in without worrying that the work overload would just pile up in our absence.

        But this is a game, not work we are paid to do.

        Again though. I rarely criticize things without suggestion how to improve it at the same time. And I honestly do not know. Blizzard have to try to cater to both casuals as well as hard core players as well as those with all day to play. That is no easy task today, I think.

        Personally I wish they would skip trying to please the player segment, that have all day to play. No game can cater to those. And it shouldn’t either.

      2. I feel that they are trying to find a balance. Offering cutting edge difficult content that will be exciting to watch, but also playable to an extent by the masses. To do a comparison, making Warcraft like World Cup Soccer. Certainly there are only a few hundred professional players that play at that level, and millions watch and cheer for favorite teams, but it’s still playable by kids and young adults, even us older folk could play in a senior league. 😬

      3. I hear what you are saying.

        But actually, in a way; There you have the solution. Blizzard; stop catering to those that play around the clock, and things will look better.

  4. While there aren’t subscription numbers anymore, Google Trends numbers are substantially correlated with player numbers across time and for various games. Those numbers show WoW now as having an audience that is 1/4 to 1/3 smaller than the its lowest point under WoD. But WoW is still producing record profits!

    Welcome to the age of the whale, then. It is evident that WoW is getting much more than $15 a month from some players, or else a record-small playerbase could not support record revenue. The consequence: player happiness or even player subscriptions no longer define WoW’s economic success. Instead, like F2P games, success comes from pushing payers to pay. That is a major sea change.

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